Taking the Sukkah down in time for the seder

The hagim have ended and, honestly, I feel relieved.

Don’t get me wrong, they were mostly wonderful and meaningful and festive. Truly they were. But by the close of Simhat Torah (which here in the Diaspora continued right into Shabbat), I couldn’t have chanted Hallel yet again or danced another hakafah. I couldn’t have cooked one more pumpkin-inflected yomtov meal or delivered one more holiday drash. Not. Even. One. By the end, I was bleary-eyed and sniffly, hoarse and exhausted.

I was eager to return to normalcy, eager to plunge into all the stuff I’d put off until “after the holidays.” Well, after a nap, anyway…

Today I planned classes and replied to e-mails, scheduled meetings and made phone calls. But our sukkah is still up. Today would have been a perfect day to pack away the sukkah. But I don’t want to rush into anything. Partly it’s because there was so much else to do today and yesterday. But I’m betting we won’t get to it tomorrow or the next day either.

I come by my reluctance to take down the sukkah honestly; it might even considered a family tradition. I grew up in a small New England town with an even smaller, close-knit Jewish community. For most of my school years, I was the only Jewish child in my grade. My mother would send me into class with treats to share before every holiday. And I would dutifully explain about Rosh Hashanah (apples and honey), Hanukkah (chocolate coins), Purim (hamantaschen) and Passover (matzah and macaroons). Maybe that’s what led me to the rabbinate, the explaining. I thought it was normal to go to school and deliver lectures about Judaism.

Anyway, back to Sukkot. My family always built a sukkah. In the early years, we transformed our dining room into a “sukkah” with paper chains, pumpkins and gourds. My mother’s piano students would arrive each afternoon for their lessons and we would tell them about the Jewish holiday of Sukkot and give them a treat. After the holiday was over, we’d inevitably leave the whole thing up for a while and my mother would add some jack-o-lanterns, a scarecrow and candy corn, which would take us into November.

Later, we built real sukkot in our back yard and festooned them with corn stalks and wild grape vines harvested from my Cousin Betty’s chicken farm up the road. This was long before the popularization of sukkah kits, but my father was not daunted. He was a mechanical engineer and he figured out how to put up a sukkah that would stand up to any meteorological catastrophe. There were years our sukkah was hit by a hurricane, lashed by high winds from a tornado or even covered by the snow of a Nor’easter.

My father’s sukkah never collapsed.

It was a kind of metaphor, just like in that sweet Yiddish song, A Sukkele, a Kleineh. Don’t worry, the father in the song reassures his frightened daughter: Es iz shoin gor bald tzvei toizent yor un de sukkale zi shteit noch ganz lang – “It’s already been nigh two thousand years and the sukkele hasn’t fallen yet.” That was my father’s sukkah. It stayed up. Well past the holiday. Well past Thanksgiving. During the long New England winters, it was easy to forget about the sukkah altogether, since it was buried under ice and snow.

But finally spring would arrive and with it, the thaw. The Passover dishes would be brought upstairs and my mother would finally put her foot down. “Louie,” she would say “you have to take the sukkah down before the seder.” Before the guests arrived. And so, in the midst of our busy preparations, my father would at last take down the sukkah (though he sometimes waited until the afternoon of Erev Pesah, cutting it quite close).

In my teenage years, when I was rather punctilious about fine points of Jewish law, I was distressed by the fact that our sukkah stood in the yard for half the year. Was that really kosher? How could it be considered a “temporary” dwelling when it stayed up until Passover? Later, when those questions no longer plagued me, I thought it was kind of neat that my father had connected one pilgrimage holiday with the next by linking the sukkah removal with the impending seder.

And now, I am loathe to take down my own sukkah in a timely way. Now, when I leave my sukkah up for a while, I think of my parents, both gone, and remember how they made the holidays so special for my brother and sister and me. I laugh at the memory of my father’s sturdy sukkah, and try to emulate the way my mother created such joyous celebrations in our home.

Last week, my siblings and their families joined us in the sukkah on our deck. It was a wonderful evening, with delicious food and laughter and lots of twinkling lights. And I am still savoring it. It was like old times.

Nu, maybe I’ll keep my sukkah up a little longer…

About the Author
Debra Cantor was ordained in 1988, a member of the first Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School class to include women. She has worked in synagogues, day schools, Jewish camps and communal agencies. Her husband is a nurse, her son is in college and her daughter just made aliyah. Debra loves teaching and playing with art supplies. Creativity is her middle name. Actually, it's Sue...